#tbt


 
 

When she was so small

When I was thinner

When I didn’t know

When I was younger

When she and I were both so new at things

When my parents were married for thirty-two years

When they could stand together for a picture with their grandchild

When they could

When my love and I lived in northern California

When I wasn’t even thirty-five yet

When I wasn’t afraid to fly to New York

When I wasn’t afraid to fly

When I wasn’t afraid

When I wasn’t

When life seemed more difficult

When it was

When it wasn’t

When my hair was short, pixie-like

When my father disapproved and said I didn’t look like his little girl anymore

When he said nothing but his eyes said as much

When he peered over his glasses and asked when we were moving back home

When he lit cigarettes in silence

When he still smoked

When the sound of striking match heads and the faint odor of burning sulfur comforted me

When he still drank whiskey neat

When I was still his little girl

When she was still my little girl

When she was still his wife

When I was younger

When she was younger

When they were younger

When the maple tree that they kissed beneath on their first date in 1963 was still living

When the branches hung over the sidewalk as green Gothic arches

When it still stood on 216th Street

When it hadn’t died

When it hadn’t been taken down

 

#tbt

 

 

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Music Prompt: Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”

In 1988, I was a college freshman, unavailing and alone on a university campus in upstate New York.

When I was in high school, one of my family members had come to the abrupt conclusion that their years of alcohol abuse had taken a toll on all of us, and had valiantly — and unsuccessfully — sought sobriety. This was an isolationist stance, and a self-induced extrication from our shared Irish code — where babies lay limp at the touch of mothers’ whiskey-wet fingertips on their throbbing gums, where toddlers were given sips of cold beer to refresh their forming palates, and where one’s first adolescent taste of alcohol was viewed as a rite of passage by uncles with weathered cheeks and calloused hands.

I’d first gotten drunk when I was two years old, and at the time, no one found that odd. At four, I’d been lifted up on barstools and told to place orders for whiskey – two fingers neat – for my father. Red-jacketed men in midtown locales did my little-girl bidding, and poured out as much. This language of drink was stunted and wrong, it was abusive and cyclical, and it was what we called love. Now, one of my family members stood outside of it, and implored me by their actions to consider the same intention.

I left for college with milk crates and cassette tapes, and with the knowledge — if not yet the understanding — that the DNA of addiction was embedded within me. At the time, I resented the light shed on the subject, the Ala- code words and the Blue Book language of sobriety. I’d had my own pulls of Jameson and drags from Marlboro Lights, at ages too young now to fathom. While other teenagers were unleashed on campus bars with credit cards and hormones, with the stamina of youth and a perpetual thirst — I’d been counseled by my conscience to keep my lips dry, and to feign ignorance at the language of intoxication swirling around me. In my turbulent years of indulgence to follow, this awareness helped to right my vessel. But at eighteen, I begrudged the distance from booze-fueled failure. I wanted it to be mine, too. I wanted to belong to it.

That first semester, I avoided keg parties whenever possible, fearful of my genetic fate. Instead, I spent off-hours by myself at the campus record store. I wanted to lose myself in music. Songs soothed me, and lulled me into believing that I’d be alright.

One day, while I browsed the racks, the insanely cool girl-woman behind the register dropped an album side of Van Morrison’s “Veedon Fleece” onto the turntable, and I was transfigured. I heard “Fair Play,” “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, “Streets of Arklow,” and then — “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River.” I walked up to the checkout area to ask about this music. It was Van Morrison, but one that I didn’t yet know. The clerk smirked at me, with the cool, bored grace of a seasoned upperclassman, and said that she was so happy that I wasn’t asking her about fucking “Moondance.”

“You dig Van Morrison?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I answered — immediately, because it was true. Van Morrison’s scats and his lyrics and his jazz-infused, blues-borne madness somehow made me feel less alone in my head. His music warmed me. But this album seemed to delve deeper into Morrison’s Irish roots. It was inherently Celtic and haunting. It spun and it flowed and it spilled into the aisles and grazed me as it sauntered out the door. I understood it, as I sometimes understood other things — not as something to describe, but to simply feel and know.

I couldn’t buy “Veedon Fleece” at the store that day, because it was a random, beaten-up copy and they didn’t have any others in stock. The album hadn’t sold well in the seventies when it was first released, and thereafter, was poorly distributed. The clerk talked with me more about Van Morrison — seemingly eager to share some thread of knowledge with an eager-eyed freshman who, she must have gathered, had a slim chance at harboring a deeper understanding of music — one greater than the rote memorization of the chorus of “Our House” while sporting a Greek-lettered sweatshirt. I listened intently to her, and held out some semblance of hope that I’d be as sexy and self-assured as she, that I’d be that mercifully cool by the time I was twenty, and that I’d make it out of college in one fucking piece.  The clerk sold me “St. Dominic’s Preview” instead, which I still delight in blasting in my home and my car now, at forty-five.

But that day, that afternoon, that moment of memory — when “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River” and I met for the very first time. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

I’ve spoken recently to that family member — who found sobriety again twelve years ago — and wondered aloud why the switch of addiction hadn’t flicked on for me, while being ever mindful of the DNA, the Irish code, the powerlessness, and the possibility.

When you were a child, you were a tomboy
Your sole satisfaction way back in shady lane
Do you remember, darlin’?

And it’s the woman in you and it’s the woman in you
You’re sole satisfaction and it take the child in you to know
The woman and you are one

We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul,
I mean the real soul, people, talkin’ ’bout the real soul people
We’re goin’ out in the country, get down to the real soul
We’re gettin’ out to the west coast

Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder
Goin’ as much with the river as not, as not, yeah, yeah
An’ I’m goin’ as much with the river as not
Yeah, yeah, right, yeah

Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy
Looking for the Veedon Fleece, yeah
William Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy
Looking for the Veedon Fleece, yeah

You don’t pull no punches, but you don’t push the river
You don’t pull no punches, and you don’t push the river
You don’t pull no punches, and you don’t push the river, no, no
Goin’ as much with the river as not

 

 

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Music Prompt: Terry Jacks – “Seasons in the Sun”

It was 1974, and everyone in America was angry and exhausted. Even my young, young parents.

For the first two years of my life, my parents and I had lived in Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, Inwood — “the Irish ghetto,” my father proudly reminded me, as if to bolster my young marrow. I don’t remember our cramped, three-room apartment on Cooper Street. I only remember being made to understand that it was a difficult time for all three of us.

In 1972, when I was nearly two, my parents decided to move to Queens — to a larger apartment, and to a quiet, leafier street in a safer neighborhood. Years later, I would shock my parents by recalling the details of visiting the second-floor apartment on 74th Street prior to their renting it. I was eighteen months old, and I remembered the cacophony of the loud Italian family who was living in the apartment at the time. There were three or four dark-haired children jumping off their living room couch, while their elderly grandfather sat nearby, yelling at them in a language that I didn’t understand. This is my first memory of my life — sitting quietly on my mother’s lap, and feeling both frightened and excited by the energy surrounding me.

When we moved into that top-floor apartment, my mother said that I ran from end-to-end of its square footage for several days while my parents unpacked their belongings, because I had never been exposed to so much living space. I’d never had that much room to run. After two years of sharing my parents’ small bedroom in Manhattan, I now had my own room — a closet-like space which seemed cavernous to me, and which housed my crib, a changing table and a small chest of drawers.

My bedroom door faced the stairs to the first floor, and some of my most electric memories during that time involve the sight of my father ascending those stairs after his late nights at work or bars. My parents’ friends would climb those stairs on Saturday nights as well, and even though I was supposed to be in bed, their presence would spring me from the prison of bedtime. I’d be lifted up, arms outstretched, to be passed around by my parents; by young women in gauchos and hair parted down the middle, who smelled like flowers and soap and whispered words like “precious” or “sweetie” into my tiny ears; or by young men with cigarettes and thick, black-framed glasses, who drank beer from pull-top cans and let me have sips, who tickled me and let me ride on their backs like they were tipsy circus elephants, who held me upside down by my ankles and danced with me to Santana albums, and who wondered aloud why I was never tired, or wanted to go to bed.

On other nights, I’d feel afraid at the very real possibility of gorillas somehow climbing the stairs, or that the Count from “Sesame Street” and his legion of bats — a segment which I hated, because it reminded me of the Bela Lugosi films my father would watch on weekend afternoons — would swoop up the narrow hallway and scare me. At night, I had called out so often for my parents in fear that my father decided to handwrite a large sign and tape it to my door to placate me: “NO GORILLAS OR COUNTS ALLOWED IN THIS ROOM, BY ORDER OF MOMMY AND DADDY.” Somehow, the words reassured me.

In the summer months, my father wedged a large box fan in my bedroom window, to ease my sweat-curled tossing and turning on hot city nights. During the day, while my mother cleaned or cooked dinner, I’d stand in front of the fan and exhale a loud “aaaaaaaaaaahhhhh” — delighting at the distortion of my small voice as the fan blades moved through the humid air. In the fall and in the winter, my mother would hang plastic popcorn likeness of jack o’lanterns, Pilgrims or red-nosed reindeer as holiday decorations. Their seasonal appearances excited me, because I knew something important was happening — something that we all shared, because so many windows in our neighborhood displayed similar items.

In those years, my parents said that they felt discriminated in our predominantly German neighborhood, and that we were viewed by its residents as dirty, drunken Irish. My father had just given up on law school after two years of night classes at Fordham University — a Herculean, if not Sisphyean — effort while also working a full-time job to support a young wife and child at home. They were both angry about many things — the war, the government and Richard Nixon, the city’s decline, the state of things, their struggles and their poverty, and their small, sudden place in the world.

When I was older, my parents would often tell me that our downstairs neighbor, Mr. Gebhardt, complained about the noise we made upstairs while we lived there. My parents were long-haired hippies, he must have imagined, who entertained friends too late and let their young daughter play at all hours. Once, my mother said, while they blew bubbles with me in the living room, and I toddled after the soapy spheres in my hard-soled walking shoes, Gebhardt banged on his ceiling with a broom handle to complain. The noise sparked my father’s booze-soaked anger, and in a rush of muscle and whiskey and black hair and Marlboros, he leapt over that second-floor railing to bang on Gebhardt’s door and ask him to step outside. He was met, he so often said in the re-telling, by a sad, polka-dot-boxer-shorted old man. My father had laughed so hard at the pathetic sight of him, that he could do nothing but sit on the stairs, doubled over and gasping from hysterics, while Gebhardt stood awkwardly in the doorway, red-faced and weakened.

In 1974, we moved to the other side of the street, to a larger first-floor apartment —  with a kitchen spacious enough to fit a table and chairs, and a sunroom where my mother kept all manner of spider plants and ferns, sprouting from macrame holders. A young hippie couple took the apartment above us, about a year after we’d moved in. They had nothing but a mattress on the floor and square photographs tacked to their living room wall, with captions crudely scrawled in crayon underneath. Once, my father had gone upstairs to help the elderly widow who lived in the two small rooms at the back of the second-floor apartment, and was horrified at the state of the hippie kids’ apartment upstairs. They blasted music from their turntable at all hours of the night. My father banged on the door a few times to tell them to quiet down. Times had changed.

Sometimes, I’d sit on my stoop on warm afternoons, and watch Gebhardt’s house from the other side of the street. I’d look up at the second-floor window where my box fan once sat, and which now was framed by strangers’ curtains and shades. I’d try to recall what the kitchen in that apartment looked like, and wonder to myself if the tall radiator in the bathroom was still the same shade of light green that my mother had painted it — while wearing a light-blue bandana in her hair, to match the wallpaper she’d smoothed on the bathroom walls. The apartment had few windows. She was always trying to brighten things.

Gebhardt was married to a quiet British woman whom he had met during World War II. My mother always liked her. They had one daughter, Annaliese, who was much older than me, yet still wore a plastic barrette in her neatly-bobbed hair. After we had moved out of the apartment, Annaliese was driving their car while her mother sat in the passenger seat, and would be involved in an accident that would kill her mother instantly. I remember being told that the mangle of metal left at a nearby gas station was the Gebhardts’ car. When we first saw the wreckage, my mother made a sharp sound with her breath when we drove past. I was not told that the jagged hole in the windshield was the site where Mrs. Gebhardt had been violently ejected from the car, but I could see the cracks and the shards in the glass, and the damage done. The car sat on the sidewalk for what seemed like weeks, and my mother would wonder aloud, after we’d repeatedly passed it, how Gebhardt and his daughter could bear to see that car while they ventured out in the neighborhood.

I sat in the back seat of our car, which was fashioned without seatbelts like most cars of that era, and felt so frightened and stimulated by such thoughts. “Seasons in the Sun” — that awful, sad, poorly translated song — was always playing on the radio in the summer of 1974, and I sang the verses with burgeoning awareness of what words like death and forever and always meant. Richard Nixon would resign from office at the end of that summer, and my father, so angry at the state of things, would spit at the television whenever his face appeared in the gradient lines of the cathode tube.

 

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation

  • Stopped at a farm stand and bought ears of sugar and butter corn from a man with dirty fingernails.
  • Listened to music relentlessly for several days, then embraced the quiet.
  • Hiked up a mountain and marveled at the world. Hiked back down and marveled at my quadriceps.
  • Baked white chocolate oatmeal cookies with a dash of kosher salt.
  • Read magazines and books. Not many articles in The New York Times.
  • Ate a lobster roll with a friend.
  • Ate French fries a few days later at the same friend’s wise urging.
  • Swam naked.
  • Ate naked.
  • Slept naked.
  • Did not cook naked. Sauce and oil spatter in the nastiest places.
  • Drove several times over the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, which my husband and I now commonly refer to as the “P-Funk Bridge.”
  • Lit candles.
  • Lit incense.
  • Only got lit once or twice in the past two weeks.
  • Gave a reading at a small, independent bookstore.
  • Hugged a friend on a street corner in Kingston, New York, after meeting her for coffee.
  • Walked to Woodstock Cemetery, and stopped at Levon Helm’s grave to pay my respects. Smiled at the handmade wood plaque of “Big Pink” that another visitor recently affixed to the nearby fence.

  • Bought socks with inappropriate sayings on them as Christmas gifts.
  • Ate at a restaurant with my husband and repeatedly waved to a gorgeous nine-month-old girl dining at the next table with her parents, and who, they said, had just learned to wave that morning.
  • Allowed myself the simple pleasure of challah French toast.
  • Went to the movies more frequently in the past two weeks than I have in a year.
  • Saw live music at the Bearsville Theater. Listened when my husband whispered in my ear and said, “Keep up with those drum lessons, kid. You’ve got rhythm.”
  • Drank a lot of root beer.
  • Said “hot damn” a few times. Can’t recall the circumstances.
  • Wore clunky, seventies-ish heels to dinner and looked like hot shit in them. Didn’t trip once.
  • Made love outside during a fireworks display.
  • Puttered in antique shops and realized that I’m officially “vintage.”
  • Wrote letters to our kids at camp. Got texts from our daughter who “found Wifi” near one corner of the campgrounds. Uh-huh.
  • Watched cloud formations take shape overhead and then effortlessly break apart, like Esther Williams and her supporting cast of bathing beauties in 1940s “aquamusicals.”

  • Napped.
  • Drank prosecco.
  • Chose several books with my husband at a bookstore in Rhinebeck, which we are squirreling away for each other as Christmas gifts. Neither of us would remember the choices, we said to each other. That’s the benefit of middle-age. They will be welcome surprises again on Christmas morning.
  • Fought bitterly with my husband for one afternoon about something neither of us can now easily recall. Napped afterwards.
  • Jogged around Cooper Lake. Stopped at intervals to watch the lake ripple, and to hear my heart pulsing in my head.
  • Became teary-eyed at the sight of the majestic Hudson River, and at the grateful thought of Pete Seeger.
  • Ate chocolate-sprinkle-covered soft-serve ice cream on a hot day with my husband in the car. Raced against its melting properties with my tongue to keep the dairy dessert structurally sound, while dozens of chocolate jimmies jumped ship and scattered on my lap. Decided, after exiting the car and viewing the resulting mess, that my porn name should be “Sprinkle Crotch.”
  • Sampled homemade raspberry jam, from berries that my husband picked in our garden and boiled on the stove with white sugar.
  • Scored the last piece of homemade cheesecake from a local restaurant and shared it with my husband at my birthday dinner. Didn’t need no stinkin’ candles. Just two forks.
  • Recalled the joy of driving stick shift, the tactile pleasure of crank windows and the Zen-like static from AM/FM radios, while I drove my ’64 VW through Woodstock, New York. Waved back at people who waved to us and beamed at the sight — and unmistakable sound — of the car.
  • Didn’t get sick of my husband after two weeks together. And he didn’t get sick of me. (Or so he says. I was naked at the time.) Reaffirmed the fact that nineteen years of marriage have been imperfect and funny, both hard work and easier than we imagined, and mostly righteous. Hot damn.
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Music Prompt: The Five Stairsteps — “O-o-h Child”

Whenever I think back on my memories of seventies-era Brooklyn, it always seems to be summer. It’s perpetually hot, and I’m in pigtails. Windowsashes are thrown open, and from the street, I can hear faceless conversations mingling with the clatter of strangers’ breakfast dishes. Not everyone has enjoyed the luxury of air-conditioning yet. The outer borough is dirty and graffitied and financially depressed, but in my memories, the neighborhood glints, in the gleam of playground slides and chrome bumpers, and subway cars rattling across elevated tracks.

In these memories, I’m in endless loops of four, and six, and nine. I’m wearing terry-cloth short sets from A&S, and iron-on t-shirts from Kresge’s, or another mom-and-pop store on the Flatbush Avenue Junction, which feature the likeness of “The Fonz” or the “M*A*S*H” acronym. I’m in backyards and on stoops, shielding my eyes from the sun. I’m waiting on line in front of the Midwood movie theater with my aunt and my cousin, to see “Star Wars” or “The Muppet Movie.” The crank windows of Pontiacs and VWs and Buicks and Datsuns are always open, and passengers toss beer bottles and cigarette butts out of them. Their car radios play the throbbing bass of Philly soul and Motown, the lyrics of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I spin on stools at the Kresge’s lunch counter, while I wait for my aunt to end her shift upstairs as the store’s bookkeeper. I smell cigarette smoke everywhere, even outside in the open air. My grandparents take me to Sunday mass in St. Jerome’s church basement, because it has air-conditioning, and because — as I’m often told — my grandfather’s already had one heart attack. We walk all afternoon to shop for rye bread and cold cuts and cakes packaged in white boxes with red twine, and Scott toilet tissue dyed to match the bathroom tile. I step in a lot of gum, and it stretches from my heel in long, sinewy strings to the pavement. Engines gun and backfire. Tires and brakes screech. I am loved. This is another place that I’ll come to think of as home. This is another place that no longer exists.

In 1974, I am playing on my great-aunt’s front porch, with a little girl who lives in the twenties-era, six-story apartment building on the corner. There’s a cement transom over the double-doors of her apartment building, engraved with the name “CHARLESTON” or “MADISON” or “ARCHER.” I can no longer remember the name, even though we so often passed it on our way to and from mass, while visiting my aunt’s apartment, or shopping. When I was small, the moniker seemed to represent something far grander than what Brooklyn had become.

My great-aunt and grandmother live in an attached, two-family house on Farragut Road. They bought it together in 1950. My grandparents live on the top floor, and my widowed great-aunt lives downstairs. She always keeps her curtains closed, and smokes at night in the dark.

The little girl and I are friends because we are both four or five and we are outside and we are little girls and we are thrilled by each other’s existence. Cars drive by, and music wafts out. The Five Stairsteps’ hit, “O-o-h Child,” plays from a large, American-made car. The song often plays somewhere in the early seventies — from car radios and over store loudspeakers and on transistor radios.

The little girl has had her hair sectioned, and its tufts are held taut by balled ponytail holders, in shiny colors of white and deep blue and yellow. The plastic adornments look like gumballs, and I wonder if they taste like them. She asks if I want to wear my hair like hers. I say yes, but know that I have to ask my grandmother first, because I’m that kind of kid.

I open the front door, and run up the flight of stairs to my grandparents’ home on the second floor. My grandmother is standing in the kitchen, and I ask her if the little girl down the street can do my hair like hers. Can she put my hair in rows? Can she?

My grandmother is stern and swift. No, she says. We won’t have that. You can’t wear your hair like that.

She doesn’t say these words out loud, but I still hear them in the strained silence: “like a black girl.” She tells me to stay inside, and not to return to the porch. I quietly obey her.

I am confused, and I am ashamed, because I believe that I’ve done something wrong, but I don’t know what that is. This is my first memory of prejudice. I have never forgiven myself for not defying my grandmother that day, and bounding down the stairs with a Goody comb and a fistful of ponytail holders. I have always held that memory, I think, to protect my little-girl psyche — before I was taught to measure the awful distance, and to see any difference.

 

 

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Music Prompt: Paul Simon — “Still Crazy After All These Years”

I often write at home to the accompaniment of music. Songs can swell my soul, and fill my eyes with tears, at their first wavering notes. Songs help me reach memories that words are not yet ready to describe. Songs offer me the surest sense of place. Songs are my traveling home.

Today’s blog post is the second in a series I’ll be writing throughout the summer — prompts by songs which invoke memories, and which still move and heal me after so many years. Feel free to tell me about songs that have moved you as well.

This blog post isn’t really about Paul Simon, or about the guitar. It’s about a scrappy little girl in 1979 who wanted to play the drums, even if circumstances didn’t allow for such creative indulgences.

She drummed on everything she could find — tabletops and Tupperware containers, school desks and car dashboards, and her pale, Irish-white thighs which peeked out from her pleated Catholic school skirt. Sometimes, her father would grab her hands at the dinner table and beg her to stop. Kaaaaaaaath. Staaaaaaaaaahp.

That little girl was me. I couldn’t carry a tune. Not even if a sherpa strapped it on his back and hauled it for me. But I always loved music. I felt throbs of rhythms in my chest. As a toddler, I spun in heady circles while listening to my mother’s singer-songwriter LPs, long before I ever traveled to Dead shows. I’d liein front of my parents’ turntable speakers, ear to the woven fabric, until someone scolded me for getting too close and damaging my eardrums. I’d gaze upon midtown Manhattan from the back seat of my parents’ car, and match the gait of the city’s pedestrians to whatever song was playing on the car radio — Steely Dan or Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Life itself had a continuous soundtrack. I wanted to somehow express what I heard in mine.

But drums? Out of the question, my father said. Or more accurately, and simply — no. We lived in Queens, in an attached row house with thin walls. We didn’t have money to spend on drum kits, nor did we have the space to store them. So — no, kid. Absolutely not.

Still, I tapped pencils on surfaces until I chipped away flints of painted, yellow wood. I unh-unhed to myself in bed at night while I listened to WNEW-FM’s hard-rock lullabies on my clock radio. Was there any other way for a seventies-era kid to fall asleep in the outerboroughs?

One morning, my fourth-grade teacher pinned a flyer to the bulletin board in our classroom. The mimeographed sheet read GUITAR LESSONS FOR BEGINNERS in hand-lettered caps, with fringed tear-off sections featuring a telephone number to call for more information. When school ended that day, I surreptitiously walked past the board and tore off one of the sections.

My parents strangely said yes to my alternative request, and I was given a child-sized guitar for Christmas that year. No one ever thought to inquire if I’d need a left-handed guitar to suit my southpaw. No one in our family was all that musical to begin with. A guitar’s a guitar, isn’t it? So I learned to play right-hand, because there was no other option.

The guitar teacher was my fourth-grade teacher’s younger brother — a tumble of long hair, mutton chops and wide-wale corduroy chinos. My ten year-old cheeks blushed whenever he appeared at the door. He was sweet and shy and patient with me, never flinching as the acoustic nylon strings buzzed and thumped at my unskilled fingering.

After several months, my teacher told my mother that he’d taken me as far as he could, and that I needed to study with someone more experienced. He recommended Howard Morgen, a guitarist and composer whom he had once studied with as well.

On Tuesday nights after work, my mother would pick me up at the babysitter’s house, and drive to Morgen’s house in Great Neck. She hadn’t even had a chance to return home after a long day at work in Brooklyn, to sit on the edge of her bed, or kick off her shoes. I didn’t appreciate that about her then. I see such naive assumptions in my own children now.

We’d drive along the Grand Central Parkway, and pass the exit for my grandparents’ house in Queens Village. Each week, the “Hillside Avenue/25″ traffic sign made me yearn for them and their love for me, for the comfort of their kitchen and the companionship of their dog, whenever we passed the exit. I still do now, at forty-four, even though they have both passed away, and the house has long since been sold.

I didn’t say much as my mother chattered about her job at the phone company, about my father’s failings, or about a phone conversation she’d just endured with her mother-in-law. Instead, I’d scan the dusk-hued horizon for the sight of Creedmoor, an unmistakable architectural fixture for native New Yorkers of a certain age. As children, so many of us had one-upped each other with the vicious taunt — “yuh mothuh’s from Creedmawh” — to suggest a parent’s court-ordered stint in the well-known psychiatric hospital.

Soon after, I’d catch sight of a grouping of dark brown apartment buildings near the Lakeville Road exit, which seemed to visually delineate the line between Queens and Nassau Counties. Ahead of us lay Great Neck, an elusive mecca for the upwardly mobile middle-class, and where Mr. Morgen resided. It seemed a world away from the tired, graffiti-ed row houses of the outerboroughs.

Mr. Morgen didn’t take children as students, but for some reason, he decided to give me a go. Each week, we’d enter the side door of Mr. Morgen’s house, and my mother would settle into the fern-filled, macrame-bedecked sunroom with a long-standing embroidery project, or a copy of Woman’s Day magazine. While we waited, I sneaked peeks at the other musicians waiting to study with Howard — mostly lanky men with beards, desert boots and jean jackets. They smelled like leather and Ivory soap. At fourteen, I would have fainted at their earthy, city-cowboy sexiness. But at nine or ten, I innocently marveled at the size of their hands and the length of their legs, and at the sounds they could make behind the door of Mr. Morgen’s practice room.

At some point, my turn would come, and I’d enter with my three-quarter guitar case in hand. I’d steady myself on a tall stool and will the glossy guitar body not to slide off my uniform skirt. Even then, I berated myself up for not knowing things, and for my imperfections. Mr. Morgen was not always patient as he schooled me on v-strokes and 3/4 time, and it bothered me when I disappointed him.

Still, we soldiered on through the Mel Bay book series together, until I was granted the Holy Grail of music lessons — instructions to purchase The Beatles songbook at a music store, and bring it to the following week’s lesson. Mr. Morgen taught me “Eleanor Rigby” and “Michelle,” “Blackbird” and “Hey Jude.” He taught me more than that, I now realize, but at ten — my young life was measured in chord progressions and turns of pages.

Howard Morgen was, by his own preference, a jazz guitarist, and insisted that I learn in the finger-picking style. That meant no guitar pick, trimmed nails on my left hand, and longer, shaped nails on my right. One day, he placed a classical guitar songbook in front of me, and told me that we were taking it up a notch. He arpeggioed the fuck out   of me for a r, all while schooling me in chord construction and variation. I lumbered through the notes, never appreciative enough of his teaching, and resentful of the throbbing pain on my fingertips afterwards. I wasn’t even suffering for the Beatles, I remember thinking. I was suffering for chamber music.

After several years of studying with Mr. Morgen, we moved to Connecticut, and our lessons came to end. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me at our last lesson. I only recall feeling encouraged, in the way that only the finest teachers can make you feel.

Two years ago, I picked up the guitar again when my daughter took lessons — still preferring the fingerpicking style over that of using a plastic pick as a middleman. Like me, she’s often too shy to play in front of other people — but I recently played a Beatles song for her, and she marveled at the style I used to strum. I told her about Mr. Morgen, about the age I was when I first picked up a guitar, and a little bit about the way things used to be.

I recently found a YouTube video of Howard Morgen playing guitar — one in a series that must have comprised a teaching video he had filmed a few years earlier, before he passed away in 2012. I hadn’t seen my teacher in nearly thirty years, but his playing was unmistakable. He had arranged Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” in his own gorgeous style, and I watched his face, still happily smirking as he hit certain notes. Paul Simon, I would later learn, hadonce been one of his students as well.

We fear that our lives come to abrupt and meaningless ends when we die, and that we are surely, unequivocally mortal. But our reach is so uncharted, so truly unknown. Our memory lives in others who have grazed us, in ways so vast and small.

I am nearly forty-five, and I still own an acoustic guitar. I still beat myself up about things, but sometimes, I allow myself the simple pleasure of playing — in the very same way that Mr. Morgen taught me. Sometimes, I even do that cool thing where I lightly touch the E string and pull my fingertip back just as I pluck it, and the open note sings. And it feels just as good as the first time I could finally pull that off for him in a music lesson. I called for drum lessons this week, too. Because I owe it to that left-handed kid who learned to play a right-handed guitar. Still crazy after all these years.

Thank you, Mr. Morgen. I’ll never forget you.

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Music Prompt: Judy Collins — “My Father”

Very often, I write at home to the accompaniment of music. Songs can swell my soul, and fill my eyes with tears, at their first wavering notes. Songs often help me reach memories that words are not yet ready to describe. Songs offer me the surest sense of place. Songs are my traveling home.

Today, I’m starting a series of music prompts — sharing songs that invoke memories, and which still move and heal me after so many years. Feel free to tell me about songs that have moved you as well.

 

 

I wanted my father to love me as much as he loved Judy Collins, as much as he loved old Basil Rathbone and Katharine Hepburn films, as much as Sunday afternoon re-runs of “F-Troop” and “Mission: Impossible,” as much as hard packs of Marlboros and drives on the New York State Thruway, as much as whiskey and beer.

I wanted to believe that I was wanted. I wanted to know that I was a blessing, that I added up to more than the interruptions I inadvertently caused, and the burden I so often seemed to be.

I wanted to be adored. I wanted assurances. I wanted love. I wanted a father.

He could be distant and aloof, but my father offered a great deal of kindness for me at bedtime — when the day had loosened its hold on him, and when the stresses of his life had been soothed by supper, darkness and alcohol. He seemed to soften out of earshot of my mother, who clattered dishes in the kitchen after dinner. He’d sit at my bedside, and stroke my thick, brown hair, to soothe my fears and quiet my little-girl anxieties. He read Kipling’s Just So Stories to me, and asked me to think more on them after he’d closed the book. If I shared my fears or hesitation about the loneliness of sleep, he’d tell me to think happy thoughts. Only happy thoughts, he’d say, were allowed in this house. Then, he’d rise, and leave the hall light on for me, although, as he assured me, he was only a few steps away. He was right there.

When I was small, perhaps three or four, my parents would both kneel at my bedside at bedtime, and teach me how to pray. My mother would recite the “Our Father” prayer and my father would stay silent, a disbeliever since the advent of Vatican II in Catholicism. I would watch as they bowed their heads — never touching each other, each remaining separate in their own sphere of faith and pain. I lay on the bed, hands clasped, and thought they were praying to me, as if I was something gilded, something held high upon on the altar, or perhaps, dead and laid out, a ritual which I’d already witnessed at outerborough funeral parlors and at Irish wakes. Such thoughts frightened and thrilled me in tandem, and I lay there, giddy with blessings and God.

I already knew these rites, given my disjointed view of Sunday mass from the sheltered safety of folded Christmas topcoats and red velvet pew kneelers. The praying stopped at my bedside when I was five. I don’t know why. Not long afterwards, my mother would berate my father for sleeping through morning mass just outside my bedroom door on Sunday mornings. I’d listen quietly in my room, seated on my bed in a dress and Mary Janes, and swinging my small, lace-socked feet while finding patterns, finding sameness, in the rag rug on my bedroom floor.

Some nights, my parents would put on a bedtime show for me, and make my stuffed animals talk to each other. My mother’s toy always mimicked a perfect Irish brogue and wielded a sharp tongue. My father’s toy of choice, my teddy bear, was forever slow to the joke. The comic dialogue was an odd reversal of their personas, and my father deferred to my mother’s anger, hopping my floppy-headed bear along the edge of my twin bed in their nightly performances. I sat transfixed, as their audience of one.

After I’d gone to bed and the light had been turned out, strains of songs from Judy Collins’ album “Judith,” or her greatest hits album, “Colors of the Day,”  often wafted from the turntable speakers in our living room. At certain points, my father would lift the needle to repeat certain tunes — “Someday Soon,” “Sons Of,” Judy’s cover of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “Born to the Breed,” and the saddest song of all, “My Father.” I’d lie alone in my bedroom, searching the shadowed ceiling above me for happy thoughts, still so frightened and anxious — never knowing that my father smoked alone in the darkness only a few steps away, feeling so much the same.

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This is forty-four

Last summer, I wrote an essay entitled “This is Forty-Three,” on the eve of my forty-fourth birthday. Since it’s August 1st, and since my birthday is in a few days, I thought I’d try my hand at it again, now that I’m close on the heels of forty-five.

The prompt comes from the writer Lindsay Mead, who wrote on her blog – A Design So Vast – that she wanted to write about the middle of her life, to acknowledge who she is, what she’s become, and what she needs to accept that she will no longer be.

Seems like a worthwhile exercise. So, a recap then, of forty-four.

Forty-four is doctor’s appointments with physicians who are younger than me. Shockingly younger. Like, ten years younger. Checking-the-medical-school-diploma-hanging-on-the-office-wall-with-mouth-agape-while-my-socked-feet-dangle-from-the-examination-table-because-I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-still-in-school kind of younger.

Forty-four means no longer reprimanding my teenage daughter when she occasionally curses.

Forty-four is knowing that eighty-eight isn’t bloody likely. Or is, if I have inherited my grandmother’s genes. Either way — the days seem shorter, the seasons arrive sooner, yet the passion of my being and the urgency of my expression remains. The now of my life is so very pressing and elusive and wanted. Time whispers into my ear — or more accurately, screams — I am not yours forever. Look up ephemeral in a dictionary, kid, and Sharpie that word backwards on your forehead so you see it in the mirror every day.

Forty-four is sensing the shift in my relationship with my parents. I’ve spent more time outside of their home, rather than in it. Forty-four gazes upon my own children and wonders when and how and if such shifts will surface.

Forty-four is a gentle suggestion from my hair stylist that I “go a shade lighter” and “think about highlights” because it “adds depth” and “looks more natural.” Forty-four is roots touch-up every three weeks, four if I can stretch it.

Forty-four is my husband’s fingertips tracing the soft line of flesh behind the bend of my knee, telling me that he still desires the exploration of such places, and that he is still so heartened and amazed that they are his alone.

Forty-four means embracing my bad-ass. Forty-four means finally tucking away that good little girl in the pigtails and saddle shoes, with a tender kiss on her forehead and a toddle off to bed. Forty-four is still sweet and kind, but grew cojones.

Forty-four is being told that I’ve got nice gams.

Forty-four appreciates the things that I know and the movies I’ve seen and the cultural references I keep, ones which are slowly disappearing in the ether of life. Forty-four knows that generational viewpoints and experiences and touchstones are all mortal and transient, and that we cannot hold the space forever. Forty-four is old enough to know what’s disappearing from the vernacular.

Forty-four is swimming naked and jumping off the diving board. Finally.

Forty-four still misses my grandparents, the nasal twang of New York accents and phrases that are heard more infrequently on city streets, cheap coffee in ceramic cups and diner rice pudding without fanfare or presentation, dimes presented to little children by old men in fedoras and suits on street corners, and the familiar aroma of Sunday dinners from relatives’ kitchens.

Forty-four no longer expects people to stay. People come, people go. Forty-four no longer clutches so tightly to life.

Forty-four means that my children are nearly as tall as I am. Forty-four is finding my daughter in the walk-in closet with a pair of my strappy heels dangling from her index finger.

Forty-four doesn’t want to start watching a movie at 10 pm anymore.

Forty-four is all too real. Diagnoses and divorces and stints in rehab circle all of us like sharks. Still, morning comes. We soldier on. We know no other way.

Forty-four means calling for the drum lessons anyway, even though I won’t be the hottest girl drummer in the world. Forty-four takes a stick in each hand and splashes the cymbals.

Forty-four is more walks with the dog, and fewer runs on the track.

Forty-four is empowering myself with selfishness. Tough for an ex-Catholic. But do-able.

Forty-four eats ice cream on summer nights, but only if I call it dinner.

Forty-four thinks I’m more beautiful now than I was at thirty-five. Forty-four thinks my life experience and my passion and my vulnerabilty shines through my skin and sparks my eyes and glistens on my lips and beckons life to come closer and sit beside me and make out for a little while.

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What’s Pictured, #2

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My bookcase in Woodstock, New York. My writing prompt for today: what’s pictured.

* An original 45 of The Band’s “The Weight,” framed in painted black wood, and given to me by a friend who knows my love for Levon Helm and The Band.

* A plastic replica of The Mystery Machine from “Scooby Doo,” which was one of my kids’ favorite toys when they were little. Shaggy and Velma have gone missing. Scooby has lost a hind leg. The side doors were broken off by preschoolers on playdates years ago, and to my mind, it makes the vehicle that much more true to the period. My uncle’s seventies-era VW Bus didn’t have any seats in the back, much less seatbelts. He used to set up a playpen for his infant daughter in the back, and let me freely walk around the bus, while he blasted The Doobie Brothers and drove us out to Jones Beach. That’s the seventies right there. So I’m not throwing away the Mystery Machine. Because I’m sick like that.

* A framed photograph that reminds me of the place someone once held in my life, and no longer does. No one knows this. I don’t take it down. I’m so Irish.

* A stained-glass window — one of two matching leaded-glass pieces — which my husband and I bought in San Francisco at a garage sale. The shape and design reminded me of the window which was once framed in the living room wall of my grandparents’ house in Queens Village — which they eventually boarded over, for fear of vandalism or burglary. I remember when the project was being undertaken, and thought of the window for many years afterwards, its tinted glass darkened and dull beneath planks of wood. I saw this pair of windows at the garage sale and bought them, because I’m forever preserving the past. One window is propped on the bookcase, and the other hangs from chains in a bedroom window sash, where it catches the midday light.

* A carved wooden angel blowing a trumpet. A gift from my mother. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know where she bought it. It’s found a home on the top shelf. The angel looks like something you’d see in an R. Crumb illustration — cartoonish, round and doughy, and bulb-nosed. An odd juxtaposition in my mind. She’s growing on me.

* My 1970s-era Polaroid One-Step camera, with boxes of film stored behind it. I mean to use the camera more often, but my children and our friends’ kids are the ones who usually do. They leave the developed prints scattered around the house after they leave. I keep all of them.

* Books that I’ve read, books that I want to read, books that other people have given to me, books that formed me, books with cracked spines, books not yet touched, books that make me electric and sad and high and spiritual and renewed and quiet.

* Tchotchkes from HomeGoods. So sue me.

* A set of wooden blocks, hand-painted with a U.S. President on each one, as well as accompanying facts and term dates. When my son was smaller, he was obsessed with facts about U.S. presidents, and noticed the set in a local toy store. I waved him away and said that it was too expensive. A friend from college was with us, and he pulled me aside after witnessing the exchange between me and my son. “Buy him the set,” he whispered. “He’s only little once.” I was so moved by his noticing, and by his tenderness, which he has revealed to me in small moments like this throughout our long-standing friendship. I bought the set at his urging, and gave it to my son a few weeks later for his birthday. My boy pored over those facts for days, and was so proud of himself when he and my husband built a towering stack from the blocks, which nearly reached the ceiling.

* Vintage postcards of Howe Caverns in upstate New York

* A collection of my daughter’s ceramic pieces, which she made last year at sleepaway camp. Last summer was her “hangout with Quinn the hippie ceramics teacher and learn how to fire the kiln” sleepaway camp experience. She lost all respect for entitled kids who didn’t know how to clean up after themselves, and who left out tools and paintbrushes and masking tape splayed on the communal workspace. She knew where the rolls of kraft paper were kept, and lovingly wrapped up little kids’ lopsided, crackle-glazed bowls — while telling them how much she loved the colors they chose, and the freeform designs they fashioned. She told them that the mistakes turned out to be even more beautiful. I loved her even more.

* A framed photograph of George Harrison. My son made the frame at an arts studio near our house. He painted the wood red, and hammered small, jagged pieces of copper onto its upper corners. He picked out the photo of George from a bin at the studio, but didn’t know who the man in the picture was. He said the guy looked familiar to him, though. People come to the house and ask if we’re related to George Harrison.

* A photo I took of three elderly women walking on Metropolitan Avenue in Queens. One of those moments that I was glad to have impulsively turned and pressed the shutter button.

* A small dish that has the “New York/New Jersey” sign from the GWB painted on its face. My life in a nutshell.

* Many bottles of whiskey. There’s muscle memory for me in such bar offerings, and more symbolism there than I can easily explain. I almost never drink it. I won’t respect you as much if you ask for ice or a splash of cold water to accompany this drink. Again with the Irish.

* A painting, framed in goldleaf, of a flapper dressed in robin’s egg blue. A few years ago, I admired the painting in my father-in-law’s home. He immediately took it off the hook on the wall, and insisted that I take it.

* A framed photograph of a Scottish castle and a lake in the foreground, which a high school friend shot on a trip that he had taken just before our wedding. He matted the photo, signed it on the back with an inscription for me, and gave it to my husband and me as a wedding gift.

* A used box of classic games — checkers, backgammon, chess, tic-tac-toe — which my cousin gave me during a recent visit. Her children played with them twenty-five years ago, and she wanted my children to play with the same sets. They do.

* A square-framed photograph of myself at age 7, circa 1977, in my First Communion dress. I’m modeling the Rawlings softball glove that had just been given to me as a gift by one of my father’s high school buddies. After receiving two Children’s Bibles, three sets of rosary beads and ten crucifix necklaces that day, I’m beaming at the quirky, unexpected present. I clearly remember the sense of bucking tradition and inciting the pious ire of my grandmother, who sat just out-of-frame, and found my behavior to be completely inappropriate on such a holy day. This is a random snapshot that defines so much of who I yearned to be, and who I have finally become. I framed it proudly.

* A set of New York City subway tokens in a clear plastic envelope. Talismans.

* A stack of LPs including the Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters,” Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Basement Tapes,” and “Jewish Dances.”

* A group of illustrations, which I formed from black ink brushstrokes on paper. Last year, I attended a meditative weekend retreat with my husband. During one of the weekend’s exercises, I was instructed to hold the brush and dip into the ink, close my eyes and avoid looking down at the paper, and to simply move my hands and let go. I am not a painter, or an illustrator, and had never done anything like that before. Afterwards, all of the attendees laid out their work along the floor. People asked if I was an artist, which made me embarrassed and happy and shy. I’m still too self-conscious to frame the pictures. Oh, these things we choose to think about ourselves. These things we are told, until the words form into rock and bone.

 

 

 

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The day after Independence Day

It’s the day after Independence Day. I didn’t wear red, white and blue-hued clothes yesterday. I no longer subject my children to the injustice of sporting firecracker-themed t-shirts with glittering logos, or starred-and-striped accessories that are most likely mass-produced in China. But then, yesterday morning — my thirteen year-old daughter descended the stairs in a red tank top, blue jeans and white Converse hi-tops. “See, Ma?” she said. “Red, white and blue.”

I tried to tell my children about our nation’s Bicentennial at dinner last night, but they don’t have the attention span for my long-winded, nostalgic stories. I started saying — “I was at the Bicentennial and –” and my ten year-old son interrupted me, and segued into a conversation about tricentennials and why we don’t say “unicentennial” and determined how old each of us will be when 2076 rolls around. Neither of our children voiced the fact that my husband or I won’t be here to see that milestone. They still need us to exist.

I was going to tell them about seeing the tall ships in New York Harbor in 1976, from the higher floors of an office building in lower Manhattan.  Back then, my father knew a guy who knew a guy, and even though the building was closed for the holiday, we were able to take the elevator to someone’s office or some client’s conference room — some vantage point to see where the Hudson and East Rivers joined, and to witness the celebration. I recall chrome edging and railings, light pink marble and floor-to-ceiling windows  – the vestiges of sixties design, which we didn’t refer to as such then. It was just Manhattan.

I remember that the marble walls of the building’s lobby were cool and comforting to the touch of my six year-old palm, once we’d ducked inside and escaped July. I wanted to rest my cheek on it, and may have, while we waited for the Otis elevator.

My father smoked, as he always did, and as people once were able to, wherever they went. When we got off the elevator and arrived at the appointed floor, he lifted me up to see the masts and the sails and fanfare. I didn’t know what this was, this flurry of marine activity in the East River, or what it meant, but I understood that it was important, and that I should notice things. Pleasure boats and schooners crowded the harbor. Fireboats spewed water in hazy, misting arcs. The Twin Towers were still new to us then, and often spoken of as a blight on the skyline. I remember the glint of skyscrapers, so common to my outerborough view, but closer and brighter, as if someone had painstakingly polished all of the buildings. It might have been the city’s collective hope that day, reflecting off the facades.

My parents extended their arms in strong, straight lines, pointing to sights and asking me to follow their fingers until I could locate them. My mother told me to find the Statue of Liberty on the horizon. There was talk of my great-grandfather’s arrival here by boat in 1901, and of my grandfather’s departure on a military transport ship during World War II. There was talk of the people in my family who had toiled on the East River as longshoremen, and who had jumped from the Hudson River piers in August, eager to find solace from the relentless summers of Hell’s Kitchen childhoods. There was talk of the rivers, the marked points and places.

Two months later, in September, I was in first grade at Sacred Heart School in Queens, and had been chosen to dress in Revolutionary-War-era costume to take part in the interment of a Bicentennial-themed time capsule on school grounds. I was reading before I had started kindergarten, but the nuns liked to think they had a hand in things, so I was usually trotted out for such public events. Items from each class were ceremonially placed in a metal garbage can, which was painted in stripes of red, white and blue. My mother sewed my costume and made me a matching bonnet, which drooped on the crown of my head in the heat. We were an odd juxtaposition of feathered hair and tri-cornered hats, aviator sunglasses and buckled shoes, a strangely historical crossroads of America.

I had to read something official from a piece of paper, which I had practiced days before at my mother’s urging, to lessen any nervousness — which I wasn’t, until I watched as the container lowered into the ground. My name, listed with those of my classmates, was entering the earth on a piece of parchment paper — along with toys, books and other seventies-era artifacts not to be seen for another fifty years. Someone had decided on the contents — a committee of teachers or parents, someone who decided that this was representative of who we were, out here in Queens and in forlorn, forgotten New York City. I sensed the finality of it, I think, as my classmates shrieked to each other that they’d be FIFTY-SIX by the time they saw that can again.

My teacher’s hand rested on my shoulder as I squinted in the Indian summer sun. and gripped the twisted wire of the chain link fence. There were shovels and cut sections of sod. I recall the sight of one nun’s sensible, plodding shoe positioned on the tool’s head to ceremoniously turn the soil. Later, they’d carry several shovelfuls of dirt, and return it to the hole. Afterwards, we were ushered inside single-file. I felt relief in the cool, dark vestibule of my grammar school, and that I no longer had to see the spot where the ground had been altered. I touched the cool brick facade, and ascended the marble steps.

Tall ships and garbage cans. Earth shoes and the Spirit of ’76. Jean jackets and fife and drum. Plastic eagles splayed on faux-paneled walls. Bolts of fabric at Woolworth’s with spinning wheels and shields, procured by women in polyester pantsuits and wedge heels.

My country, ’tis of thee.

 

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